Trekking in Patagonia – Part 1

In April this year I went to Patagonia to do some trekking with 2 friends. We did two main treks during the trip, the first of which was the 5 day W trek in the Torres del Paine national park in Chile. The second trek we did was the Fitzroy and Cerro Torre trek from El Chalten.

The W Trek

From Buenos Aires we flew to El Calafate from where we could catch a bus to Puerto Natales in Chile which is the gateway town to the Torres del Paine national park.

W Trek (in red)

Buses run from Puerto Natales to the Park and from there we picked up second bus once we’d been permitted to enter the park. This was followed by getting a catamaran to take us to our chosen start point for the trek – Refugio Paine Grande. The catamaran offered excellent views of the mountains of the park and, as you can see, it was a perfect day with blue skies and few clouds. The legendary Patagonian winds were also non existent – our luck was in and the dreaded Patagonian weather never struck.

Cuernos del Paine from the Pudeto Catamaran

After disembarking we quickly got on the trail which started with some not too taxing uphill to a view point over Lago Grey and towards Glacier Grey which runs directly into the lake with an impressive ice wall. Although the walking was on a track and there was nothing too steep we all felt that with full packs and a hot sun it was quite hard going. As a result it took considerably longer than ‘guidebook time’ – we didn’t actually have a guidebook just a general ideal of how long each section should take based on signposts and maps (like the one above). Fortunately this made little difference to our plans as this first day was only a short walk of about 12km, and without a great deal of ascent and descent, to our first campsite – Grey campsite, at the head of the glacier.

Lago Grey and Glacier Grey

The campsites in the park are well laid out and, although fairly basic, they are functional – they include toilets and running water which, when I asked if it was drinking water, was said to have “not killed me”. As a precaution and because I was already feeling ropey from a dodgy empanada (mini pasty like snack with various fillings sold all over Patagonia) we opted to filter the water we refilled our bottles with, though most people seemed not to bother. My Care Plus Water Filter was up to the job, though as it isn’t pump operated it took a while for us to do 3 people’s worth of water.

For food we were carrying freeze dried meals for the evenings, packet pasta with packet sauce for lunches (which we precooked the evening before) and cereal bars for breakfasts and snacks. There is opportunity to buy basic hike food at most of the campsites and refugios en route, but it is incredibly expensive. Despite the cost, a can of coke for £3 or a Mars bar (called a Milky Way in South America) for £2 proved too much of a treat after a long day walking on many evenings.

Lago Grey and Glacier Grey from the viewpoint (a rare cloudy day)

To start day 2 we headed further up Lago Grey to get some better views of Glacier Grey before turning around and reversing day 1 – we planned to camp at Paine Grande Campsite where we had got off the catamaran on the previous day. Fortunately we felt a bit more prepared and energetic than the day before and were back on ‘guidebook times’. It also helped that it was one of the few cloudy days we would have during our 3 weeks in Patagonia, not only as this meant we were cooler but also because we weren’t so tempted to keep stopping to admire the views. The clouds did clear by the time we reached the campsite and gave us a glorious evening with the sun setting behind the hills once we’d set up our Hubba Hubba trekking tent.

Cuerno Principal from Paine Grande Campsite

Day 3 was set to be one of the longest days on the trek as we headed from Paine Grande to Los Cuernos including a walk all the way to Britanico lookout and back (the middle line of the ‘W’), at the head of the Valle Frances. We got up before dawn to feast on cereal bars and were up and walking as the sun came up, rewarding us with some beautiful morning vistas in all directions.

Cuernos del Paine at sunrise

At campsite Italiano at the foot of Valley Frances we took the opportunity to leave our packs and switch to taking just the smallest between us with just some water and snacks so we didn’t have to carry our camping kit all the way up the valley and back. Losing our heavy packs was a real boost and meant that what was the longest and most sustained steep section of the trek felt relatively easy, though it was still a lot of mileage.

Bridge to Campsite Italiano

Most of the walk was also in forest which helped keep us cool from the sun – it was another sunny day! Although there were a few view points along the way the forest also meant that the stunning views from the top of the valley were largely hidden until we got there – I like this as it really increases the ‘wow’ factor.

The Towers from Mirador Britanico

Putting our heavy packs on at Campsite Italiano after descending from Britanico was a bit depressing, and although the distance to Los Cuernos was fairly short it seemed to take forever as the path involved a lot of ascent and descent as it wound around the lakeside of Lago Nordenskjold.

View down Valle Frances

At Los Cuernos we had opted to stay in the refugio thinking that it would be a nice treat to relax a bit more after the longest day on the trek. We weren’t disapointed as the refugio was much like a large alpine hut, but with smaller bunk rooms rather than huge alpine bunks. For dinner we were served a huge plate of salmon, chips and veg – a great improvement on our freeze dried food of the previous evenings.

On talking to other trekkers at Los Cuernos we also learnt the Refugio Chileno had extended its opening for the season and we would now be able to stay. This was a massive bonus as we had been expecting to have to stay at Las Torres which is not in a great location for our final night and early morning (see map at the top).

Day 4’s trek was probably the least memorable as it followed the edge of Lago Nordenskjold for some distance over undulating terrain before cutting north up the valley to El Chileno. The last part of this trek was up a steep dirt road in the sun which proved tiring going, though fortunately by this point we had all built up some fitness and were used to walking with big packs for long days.

View across Lago Nordenskjold

The campsite at El Chileno was unusual in that it was built on the side of a very steep hill and the pitches were wooden platforms jutting out from the side of the hill. Whilst pitching the tent we were handed a hammer and told that we could move any of the nails knocked into our wooden platform to tie our guy ropes to!

Hillside camping at El Chileno

Stoves are not allowed to be used at El Chileno – the national park has very strict rules about fires and stoves due to a huge fires which destroyed much of the vegetation in some sections of the park in 2005 and twice in 2012. Camping outside of the permitted campsites is also not permitted and there are strict penalties for those who are caught – given the number of visitors to the area this is understandable and I didn’t see a single person breaking either the fire rules or the camping rules, which is certainly a good thing.

As stoves weren’t allowed we had no choice but to eat in the Refugio, the food was again excellent and it was nice not to have to go back to freeze dried food. It’s worth saying that, although expensive, the meals in the refugios weren’t as overpriced as you might think given the prices I quoted earlier for a Coke and Mars Bar.

Everything at El Chileno is carried in and out on horseback.

Next morning we got up early to make the 2 hour trek to Mirador Las Torres for sunrise so we could see the red sunrise light up the towers. A headtorch walk made a change and in the cool of the night it was nice not to be overheating, even when going up steep ground at a good pace. The sunrise over the towers was impressive though I felt it was a slight anti climax as we had, earlier in the trip, been shown a truly amazing photo of the towers at sunrise by someone who had already done the trek. Their photo had the towers glowing bright red below a deep blue sky and it looked well worth getting up at 5am for. The day we saw the sunrise there was some thin, high clouds which just prevented the colours being as strong. I was left a little disappointed, though I have to admit that having had 5 days of the walking through the most stunning landscape I have ever seen probably also meant my expectations were somewhat high!

Torres del Paine at sunrise

The walk back to El Chileno was easy as it was downhill all the way and afforded us all the views we had missed as we walked up in the dark. After packing up the tents and a short break we had only the walk to Las Torres left to do. From there we caught the bus and left the park to head back to Puerto Natales for a days rest and washing before continuing our trip.

Click to go to Part 2 – El Chalten Treks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *